Thursday, May 05, 2005

Workplace speech: Never been free, but has always been exercised

Michael McGrorty of Library Dust fame is one of my favourite liblogarians. He writes quite "cheem" (Singlish for "deep" or "thoughtful") stuff. From his recent post on Workplace Speech, I learnt that the ALA Council is considering a ALA policy on allowing library staff to have freedom in expressing their views on non-confidential professional and policy matters.

BTW, I borrowed the header to this post from his 6th paragraph:
Workplace speech is not and has never been free, if free means the right to say whatever an individual pleases. This is true regardless of whether you like it or not. The reason for that is expressed in dozens of court cases and decisions, but the gist of it is that the worker and the employer each retain certain rights in the employment relationship while surrendering others. Neither party is permitted to pull down the other; the boss hires an employee, not a muted slave; the worker may not use the employment relationship to destroy the firm...
McGrorty also lists URLs to related US public sector court cases.

If I understand McGrorty's last paragraph, he's suggesting that the outcomes of the ALA resolution won't really change reality. End of the day, courts will still uphold legal precedents.

I like the idea of my employer stating upfront what employees can or cannot say. Something like this: "Employees are empowered to exercise discretion in expressing their views on non-confidential professional and policy matters."

But come to think of it, do we really need a written statement like that? NLB frontline staff already exercise discretion when expressing views on professional and policy matters. Being in the public service, we get public enquiries all the time. Some of those enquiries broach on policy, like "Why does the library charge a reservation fee? Don't I pay my tax already?"

In days past, before staff went for Customer Service indoctrination courses, I suppose the typical response from staff would be, "I don't know. I just do what the policy says." Bet if you got that kind of reply, you'd be cheesed off. No wonder visits to the library were low.

Now, our staff take time to explain the rationale of the policies. But rote responses or standard replies only go so far. I often advise staff to try to explain a little bit more rather than hide behind policy statements. For instance, in addition to explaining that the reservation fee is to discourage the hoarding of books or the abuse of the reservation service, I'd also add that:
  1. The fee of $1.55 cost less than the average MRT ride. Plus, readers can choose their most convenient pick-up location at no additional cost. It's value for money since it saves the reader time from having to hunt for the item.
  2. Unlike other countries where they may not impose a fee for reservations, the Singapore system operates under a different context. For instance, our tax rates are way lower, so we can't compare such things.
By offering my personal take on the policy and practice, am I deemed to be free in expressing my views on policy? I would say Yes.

OK, one could argue that in the above example, I am just doing a positive spin on the organisation policy so it doesn't really count. Well, let's say my alternative response is this:
Sir, like you, I too don't agree we should pay for the $1.55 reservation (library staff have to pay reservation fees like anybody else). But this is my personal view. And because I don't agree with the terms of use, that's why I never place a reservation and prefer to look for the book myself.
In the above, I didn't agree with the organisation policy. I was honest in how I felt about it. Did I break any organisational rules? Don't think so.

Have I exercised discretion and tact by providing additional points? Yes, I would think so.

Back to the question -- Do we need a policy on Workplace Speech? I guess it depends. Overall, in the bigger scheme of things, I'd say the fewer the organisation policies, the better.

In today's work environment and in light of customer's expectations, we still need policies but unless it's those dealing with... I don't know... life-and-death issues or something that will impact very much on public-interest, whatever policies set should guide the employee but should not end up removing the employee's ability to make decisions. If not, you might as well put machines in place of humans.

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